ST.LAWRENCE’S CEMETERY - VITTORIOSA

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The cemetery for the Parish Church of St.Lawrence’s, Vittoriosa (Birgu) is located in Triq San Dwardu (St.Edward Street), on the left hand side, after passing the ruined Fort Salvatore.

 

Some of the victims of the 1837 cholera epidemic had been buried there, and it had been closed for about one hundred years before being re-opened in the 1960’s. During 1993 work started on clearing the old graves on the left side of the entrance. Construction and modernisation work commenced, so by 1995 a new chapel had been built in the centre of the cemetery.

 

The old headstones were placed along the far wall. The only old grave left intact was that of an Irishman, Thomas McSweeney, a Royal Marine. His grave is sited in the far left hand corner, surrounded by metal railings. The McSweeney grave has for many years been provided with candles and flowers by a local Maltese family.

  

Since his execution in 1837, several myths have emerged regarding McSweeney. They arose for several reasons: an inaccurate knowledge of the facts concerning the murder; an attempt to distort the facts for religious or political reasons; or to use a phrase now in current usage some people were “economical with the truth”.

 

As is often the case the facts taken from the Court Martial record tell quite a straightforward story.

 

McSweeney was brought to Malta on HMS Childers in February for his Court Martial on the 25th and 27th February 1837, on board HMS Revenge, which was moored in Grand Harbour.

 

The charge was that:

“.....whilst under the sentry’s charge on the Rodney’s gangway, lying in Barcelona roads, purposely and maliciously pushed James T.Allen, Lance Serjeant of the Marines, from the gangway into the waist on the maindeck...”

 

Allen died at 12.15 a.m. on 21st July 1836, in consequence of the injuries he received from this fall. In those days there was no prosecuting counsel, the Judge Advocate obtained evidence by questioning the witnesses on oath, as also did other members of the Court.

 

The Court heard how McSweeney joined HMS Rodney when she was first commissioned in 1835, and that he was quartered at the after main deck Quarter, under the charge of Lieutenant Payne. His immediate superior was Lance Sergeant Allen, an Englishman and a Protestant.

 

Events came to a head on the evening of 16th July 1836 when McSweeney, as a member of the port watch, was required to be on the upper deck to help hoist the pinnace.

 

Shortly before 7 p.m. Lance Sergeant Allen discovered that McSweeney was absent from his post and found him on the main deck slinging his hammock. Allen took him aft and reported him to Commander Scott for being off deck during his watch. The Commander ordered McSweeney to be placed in the port Gangway Sentry’s charge until he had time to deal with him for this indiscipline.

 

About 20 minutes later the event took place that was lead to Allen’s death and the subsequent Court Martial of McSweeney.

 

Allen at that time was facing HMS Rodney when McSweeney suddenly rushed across the gangway and pushed him. Allen fell down into the waist of the ship. He had no warning of the attack and although he threw out his arms in an attempt to break his fall, he struck his head on the maindeck below.

 

McSweeney was immediately placed under close arrest and whilst being taken again to see Commander Scott was confronted by the Ship’s Gunner, who commented to him “You’ll be hanged for that, you blackguard...” to which McSweeney is alleged to have replied “Now I’m satisfied, they can do what they like to me...”

 

Commander Scott warned the prisoner of his situation but he repeated his comments to the effect that he was ready to take any punishment that the service required.

 

The first witness at the Court Martial was Corporal Robinson who gave evidence of the incident itself, and he was followed by three other Royal Marines and two Royal Navy officers, who gave similar evidence of the event as Robinson.

 

When the court resumed on Monday 27th February McSweeney requested the Judge Advocate to read his written defence, which said:

 

“I most earnestly pray of you to take into consideration the state of my mind on being charged with maliciously pushing Sgt Allen into the Waist; and as you were graciously pleased to allow me until today to make my defence, I trust you will give credit by my statement.

 

I was under the sentry’s charge for the sgt reporting me for doing the necessary duty of slinging my hammock at the time the pinnace was being hoisted in. The witnesses declare that there was no previous altercation between us, but at the moment in a fit of vexation for being reported for so slight a matter and his sneering at me and saying as he passed me on the gangway. “You bog-trotter, you are in for it now”, I thought I would not let him do so for nothing so made a short run to catch hold of him without even thinking he could possibly fall into the Waist. And on oath I can declare it was without the slightest intention or thought of taking his life.

With respect to the words it is said I used after the Sgt fell, I also solemnly declare that I have no recollection of, as my mind is far from sound”

 

By midday the court had adjourned and had unanimously reached the decision that the charge was fully proved, and that the death sentence be passed.

 

The proceedings of the Court Martial were submitted by the Commander in Chief to the Lords of the Admiralty in London, and their Lordships approved the sentence, and directed that it was to be carried out on HMS Rodney.

 

HMS Rodney was being refitted in Port Mahon, Minorca, when ordered to proceed to Malta for the express purpose of McSweeney’s execution. She arrived on Monday, the 5th of June, and moored in Grand Harbour.

 

From the day he was condemned until the moment of his execution McSweeney, a Roman Catholic, received daily visits by two Maltese clerics, the Reverend Padre Maestro Tonna, and the Reverend Dr.C.Falzon, who were zealous in their efforts to prepare him to face the situation and forthcoming execution.

 

Whatever their success in providing him with spiritual comfort, and receiving his private confessions, at no time did he make any public confession of his regret for causing Allen’s death.

 

At an early hour on Thursday morning the 8th June he was brought from his cell on HMS Ceylon to his old ship the Rodney, which was moored in a central position in Grand Harbour. The Valletta bastions overlooking Grand Harbour were crowded with Maltese, as were the windows and terraces of the quayside houses.

 

The squadron present, consisted of the Caledonia, Asia, Vanguard, Russell, Ceylon, Rapid, Nautilus, the cutter Hind, and steam vessels Medea, Spitfire and Firefly, and although the rigging of every ship was manned, such was the silence that as Captain Parker read the Sentence and Warrant his voice was distinctly heard at some distance by people in the numerous small boats.

 

It was a few minutes to six o’clock as the dramatic scene was watched by thousands of people. McSweeney, with the noose around his neck, which had been previously adjusted by the common hangman, was standing on a platform rigged over the hammock netting under the foreyard being spiritually prepared by Padre Tonna.

 

The other end of the rope, which was reaved through a block attached to the yardarm was firmly held by Marines and two seamen from each ship of the squadron, awaiting the signal. The moment Captain Parker finished reading the Warrant of Execution, a single gun was fired, and the group of marines and seamen ran quickly along the deck causing McSweeney to be rapidly hoisted up to the yard-arm, a height of about 60 feet above the deck, so to the onlookers his death appeared to be instantaneous.

 

After hanging half an hour, his lifeless body was lowered and conveyed to the chapel of San Salvadore behind the Naval Hospital, Bighi, from where it was taken away by the brotherhood of the Rosarianti for interment.

 

At the period including 1837 the Rosarianti usually took the bodies of executed criminals for a burial to the cemetery of Blata-il-Bajda, therefore some doubt arises over the tomb in which is in St.Lawrence’s. Was it the original resting place of McSweeney, or a memorial by those who felt that the evidence against him did not justify the death penalty and that Allen’s death was an accident. Until further evidence can be found this question will remain unanswered.

 

Surviving gravestones moved to the inside wall include:

 

Died 17th February 1863, Ann ALLICOTT, aged 31 years …….months, the wife of  Private W.Allicott, 2nd Battalion 15th Regiment

 

Died 24th November 18**, Edward BRENNAN, aged  .….. 4 years, 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment

 

Died 17th October 1854, Alfred CASSON, Able Seaman, killed at the bombardment of Sebastopol

 

Died 17th September 1854, William H. CAWN, aged 17 years, Sailmaker's boy, of cholera.

Shipmates all, as you pass by,

As you are now, so once were we,

As we are now, so you will be

Prepare yourselves to follow....

 

Died 24th November 1864, Edward J. CONLAN, aged 23 years, Ship's Corporal, HMS Liffey. Gravestone erected by his beloved brother and friend John Walherlake

 

Died 25th November 1871, W. ELLIOTT, aged 42 years 7 months, Private, 64th Regiment. Born 28th April 1829. Monument erected by his wife

 

Died 26th March 1861, Jeremiah FIELDS, aged 30 years, 22nd Regiment

 

Died 20th October 1864, George FOSTER, aged 28 years 8 months, Sergeant, 2nd Battalion, 4th King’s Own Regiment

 

Died 3rd July 1872, John William GIFFORD, aged 1 year 11 days, son of Colour Sergeant Gifford, 74th Royal Highlanders, and Catherine his wife

Suffer up little children

and forbid them not to come to me

for the kingdom of heaven is for such

 

Died 5th November 1867, Winifred GORMAN, daughter of Colour Sergeant N.T. Gorman and Jane his wife, 64th Regiment

 

Died 23rd April 1859, James GROGAN, aged 22 years. Seaman on HMS Marlborough.

 

Died 9th September 1861, Edward HANLEY, aged 25 years, Private, 2nd Battalion 15th Regiment. A tablet was erected by the N.C.O.'s and Privates of the 2/15th and 2/22nd Regiments. Employed in Vittoriosa Hospital (where he accidentally met his death)

All you that pass this way alone

O think how sudden I was gone

God does not always warning give

Therefore be careful how you live

 

Died 17th October 1854, Thomas HARRISON, Able Seaman, killed at the bombardment of Sebastopol

 

Died 3rd September 1872, Ellen HORGAN, aged 9 months, the daughter of John and Hannah Horgan, 1st Battalion, 18th Royal Irish Regiment

 

Died 2nd April 1871, Wilhelmina Adelaide JEFFREY, aged 16 days, the daughter of A. Craig and Adelaide Jeffrey. She bled to death

 

Died 12th December 1860, Martin LILDERRY, (? EILDERRY), Private, 1st Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, The Buffs

 

Died 4th July 1871, Ellen McCARTHY, aged 32 years, the wife of Jeremiah  McCarthy, Private, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment

A loving wife a mother dear

Beneath the dust............

 

Died 31st August 1850 Matthew McGRATH, aged 39 years 6 months, Ropemaker, on HMS Marlborough.

 

Died 8th June 1837, Thomas McSWEENEY, aged 23 years, executed on HMS Rodney

 

Died 11th December 1860, John MALEY, aged 24 years, Seaman on HMS Orion

 

Died 16th January 1869, Isabella MITCHELL, aged 25 years 10 months, the wife of Colour Sergeant Thomas Mitchell, 87th Royal Irish Fusiliers

 

Died 22nd October 1865, John O'DONNELL, aged 10 months, the son of Stephen Hanora O'Donnell, Sergeant, 29th Regiment

 

Died 9th March 1869, Francis Thomas PURCELL, aged 1 year 11 months, son of Sergeant Major W.Purcell, 48th Regiment

Then were little children presented to him

That he should lay his hands upon them

and Pray.

Suffer little children

to come unto me

and forbid them not

for such is the

Kingdom of Heaven

 

Died 22nd April 1854, William SALTER (? SADLER), Able Seaman, being the first man who gloriously fell at the bombardment of Odessa

 

Died 18th October 1863, John SULLIVAN, aged 11 years 9 months 9 days, the son of Andrew and Catherine Sullivan, 100th Prince of Wales's Royal Canadian Regiment.

O where is my beloved offspring fled

His face no more I see

His body rests amongst the dead

In heaven his soul is free

 

Died 18th May 1856, David TWOMEY, aged 32 years, Sailmaker's mate, HMS Terrible. Burst a blood vessel. (Same gravestone as William H.Cawn)

 

Died ... November 1855, John WELCH, fell from aloft HMS .…………..

 

Died 29th April 1864, Martin WHEALAN , aged 27 years, Seaman, HMS Liffey

 

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